Saturday, December 18, 2010

Landing practice under low clouds

Friday I went to Crystalaire to work with an instructor to prepare for my Commercial practical test. Although it was raining on the south-facing foothills as I drove up from Orange County, Crystal is in the "rain shadow" of the San Gabriel mountains and only had clouds. But very low clouds - so low it was not possible to do anything but pattern flights, and even on those we could not get above about 800 feet. (Fortunately in Class G airspace we just need to stay clear of clouds.) So that's what we did: seven low flights. This was our first time working together, and he's going to need to see if I'm flying to Commercial standards, so we would need to do this sometime anyway.

We did a mix of standard patterns, rope breaks, and abbreviated patterns. Sometime he gave me a target touchdown point and/or stopping point just after we released from tow, so I had to quickly plan my pattern and glideslope. (This may not sound like a big deal to readers who are power pilots, but remember that in a glider you can neither add power nor go around). The runway is a mile long, and there was very little traffic, so we could touch down at either end and roll to the far end if desired.

All my previous preparation for the Commercial test had been in our Blanik L13's. The Grob 103 is a slipperier ship, and has no flaps, so the energy management is different. I've flown it a lot, and have done some short-field landings in it at Hemet, but lots of my flights in it have been at Tehachapi where we also have a long runway. And many of my flights in it have been dual with other pilots, so I have fewer landings in it than I'd like. So I really have not done many "accuracy" landings in the Grob, nor have I ever slipped it very much.

I'd never done a rope break in the Grob before... this day I did two. Both went fine, except that my turn was not steep enough on the first one. In a high-L/D ship like this, you can really do a 180-degree turn from about 200 feet AGL and get back to the runway with excess height that you need to lose either with spoilers or a slip.

The final flight was a "no-drag-devices" approach. That means flying the whole pattern with no spoilers, only using a slip to bring it down. Again, I've done it in a Blanik before but not in the Grob. It really did not want to come down! I was in a full slip, giving it all the aileron and rudder that I could, and was still too high about 1/3 of the way over the runway. (It didn't help that I was letting my speed get way too high.) He took over and demonstrated that it's possible to get it into a deeper slip if you kick the rudder all the way over abruptly. Somehow that gives the fuselage enough momentum to carry it into a more extreme yaw than if you apply the rudder just as far but more gradually.

By the time I had put the ship away, had a debrief, and ate my lunch, the clouds were breaking up. But I don't think anyone else was around to fly. And the drive back down to the basin was again through heavy rain and fog. You can see it creeping over the mountains in this pic.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why is soaring like fishing?

One of the comments fisherman often hear is "You shoulda been here yesterday!" One of the comments I'm hearing lately at the gliderport is "There was wave all week!" This Saturday was pretty much the same as the last time I was at Crystalaire: northeast winds from the desert causing Santa Ana winds where I live, and really strong through the passes that lead into the high desert... but nearly calm at the airport and the adjacent mountains. We could see wave clouds about 40 miles to the east and 20 miles to the west, but nothing at Crystal. And the thermal forecast was dismal - very warm air aloft, NO chance of thermal formation although the surface temperature got up to the 70's (welcome to December in the California high desert).

So although no other gliders were staying up, I flew anyway just for the practice. My first flight at Crystal was an orientation with an instructor, and my second was with another club pilot who has flown there a lot, so I needed to get in the air by myself. We towed the glider to the west end of Runway 07... seemed like I walked a half a mile holding the wing. Oh, wait... it WAS a half a mile: that runway is 2600' long. Soaring does involve a bit of walking!

I was going to get a 4000' tow to the mountains and look for ridge lift. There was nothing over the "Second Ridge", so I hung on to 4700' feet AGL hoping to find something... ANYthing. I eventually pulled off and went back and forth over Second Ridge and got nowhere. At least I was not hitting any sink, so I didn't come down very fast.

I did encounter a little turbulence, so thinking that there MIGHT be a little wave action forming, I went back and forth through the valley between the ridges. Nothing.

I tried up and back over the First Ridge. I did encounter a narrow little bump. When I went back over that same spot and bumped again, I tried circling there but again found nothing.

Back out over the desert. Nothing but smooth air. No sink, so at least I was coming down at the normal sink rate for the Grob 103, which is about 15o feet per minute or so. I was back down on Runway 07 after 36 minutes. Pretty much a sleigh ride. But good practice, searching the ridges and learning how high I need to be at different points in order to maintain a safe final glide slope back to the airport. Now if a friend wants to go for a glider ride, I'll be comfortable taking them up from this airport.

I sat down with the Chief Instructor and worked out a plan to resume my final training and signoffs for my Commercial and Instructor certificates. Regular readers will recall that I was just days away from taking those test when all soaring was shut down at our home airport in Hemet. Since then I've been trying to work out the combination of aircraft, gliderport, instructor, and inspector that will let me successfully take those tests without breaking my soaring bank. Now that we have the Grob stationed at Crystal, I think it's feasible. I hope to complete these within three months. I'll continue to blog about how that process goes.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Silver Badge - kind of

I see from the listing in this month's Soaring magazine that my Silver Badge has been approved. But I have not yet received the badge itself or a letter or email from the SSA. I know they had a change in the volunteer staff who handles the badge program, so I assume they're running a bit behind as they get started. But it's nice to know that my claim was accepted!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Dual flight at Crystal

The last few days have been windy at Crystal, so I was hoping for some wave or ridge lift. Although there were strong Santa Ana winds through the Cajon Pass on the drive out, the air at Crystal was pretty dead. And it was not warm enough for thermal activity to be very strong. So we weren't expecting to soar - and we didn't. N and I took a 5000' tow at about 1:00 in the Grob 103. I flew the takeoff and tow and the part of the flight in the mountains. It was about 55-60 degrees on the ground, so I expected it to be pretty cold aloft, but it was not bad. We hit little bumps on some of the ridges, but not enough to sustain us. N took over as we came down over "Second Ridge" and I pulled out my camera. He found a little bit of lift down low over the desert, but again not enough to keep us up.

We ended up with a 37-minute flight, nothing to write home about. But it as good for me to fly dual in this new (to me) location.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

First flight at Crystal

Our club has placed our two glass ships at Crystalaire Airport (which we all call Crystal) in the desert north of the San Gabriel mountains. I'd never flown there, though several of our members had and said it was great. The problem for me is that it's farther from home, about an hour and 20 minutes each way, vs. 1 hour to Hemet and 45 minutes to Lake Elsinore. But with the Blaniks grounded, there's not much choice, so we're all getting "field checkouts" so we can fly there.

The commercial operation is very good, with nice facilities, friendly people, and good services. They have line crew for not only launching but towing gliders out and back with electric golf carts... nice office, clubhouse, shaded areas, nice restrooms. Very good! They have a 2600' paved runway with 1000' of dirt runway extensions on either end. Limited emergency landing options, but not too bad. Good tiedowns. Excellent information about their Standard Operating Procedures, as well as sources of lift, on their web site.

I got there about 9:15 and had an 11:30 appointment with an instructor. I got some ground orientation from some of the (regulars? employees?) and prepped our Grob 103. Very interesting weather conditions: clouds and drizzle where I came from south of the mountains, lots of lenticular clouds to the north, shear lines to the east and west where canyons cut through from the coastal side, high thick cirrus blocking the sun, and a moderate wind from the northwest. They said it was the first "wintry" day yet this season, and it was only about 68F by 11:00, so we did not expect much in the way of thermals.

We took off about 11:50, instructor X in the front seat and me in the rear. We towed up over the ridges and found NO thermal lift, so we kept going up to one of the mid-level peaks named Mt. Lewis. Still nothing. Finally near the top we found some lift and let off. It was probably the highest tow I have ever taken, 4700' AGL, but we needed the altitude in order to do a proper mountain flying checkout. They want to make sure we're well versed in the risks of mountain flying, since that's where most of the soaring occurs here. I'm not an expert, but I'm not without experience in the mountains. I've flown from Hemet-Ryan to nearly the top of Mt. San Jacinto, a gain of about 5,500', using thermal and ridge and a little anabatic lift. I've flown over the Tehachapis, using thermal and anabatic lift. And a couple of cross-country flights north from Tehachapi over the southern Sierras.

But today's lift was different. It was mountain wave lift, and it was going up adjacent to a ridge, not at all where I expected it, so it was somewhat confusing as to where the best lift actually was. X showed me how to feel the rotor turbulence, to go upwind from it to the wave lift, and to feel out where the (fairly weak) lift was the strongest. We flew back and forth looking for "sweet spots" and working up 1 hundred feet or so on each pass. He also demonstrated flying much closer to the peaks and rocks than I usually go. But let me point out that X is one of the most experienced and well-known instructors in the country, so I was in good hands. Occasionally he would say things like "let's go over here... usually not a good idea, but I want you to see what this is like...". These mountains are fairly rugged and with sharp tops, so the turbulence on the downslope side can be intense, and there's the downward side of the wave flow to watch out for too. I learned a lot, and flew higher in weak lift than I would have been able to do on my own. X pointed out my errors in coordination (I guess I'm a bit rusty in the Grob, with its heavy ailerons), and pointed out how I needed to improve in staying in the best part of the lift. Did I mention I learned a lot?

We eventually went back out over the desert, and X pointed out many lift sources as well as the many fields and airstrips and flat spots that are NOT landable, and the few that are. We found wave lift over the flatlands as well, and I got better at feeling the rotor and finding the wave. I guess I had always assumed wave lift was usually up high, but we were only about 3 to 4 thousand feet AGL. This area can get wave lift when the wind is coming from several different directions, so it's a major source of lift that we need to learn to exploit.

We eventually had to pull spoilers to get down, and landed after an hour and 20 minutes. I was careful not to overshoot the final turn as I have done a few times in the Grob, and actually ended up undershooting the turn a bit! But after straightening that out, my landing was really good - a long float in ground effect, smooth touchdown, and perfect roll off the runway into the wind into a stopping area. It's always a little intimidating flying with a new instructor, so I was pleased that I got a good landing to finish up with. And then the crew showed up with the cart to pull us back - I always dread pushing the Grob after a flight!

So although X and the others declared this was one of the worst soaring weather days they had seen in a long time, we got a good flight. One of our other members was coming out late in the day for his checkout, so I stayed and took care of a few equipment issues until he took off. A nice first day - I'm looking forward to coming out again soon. With the help of the line crew, it'll be feasible to come out and fly the PW5 even if no other club members are there. One of my goals will be to fly to the top of Mt. Baldy. It's about 10,000' high and the airport is at 3400', so with a 2500' tow the altitude gain will need to be about 4000'. I think it's actually a bit closer to the airport than Mt. San Jacinto is to Hemet, so it should be fairly easy, though the terrain in between is less forgiving.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Blanik Dilemma

In June, there was a fatal accident in Austria involving a Blanik L13 glider which lost a wing. The investigation is not yet complete, but the manufacturer / type certificate holder, known as LET, issued a mandatory bulletin restricting aerobatics and requiring an inspection (for cracks) and requiring that the results and the glider's usage history be sent back to LET for evaluation. Later, the FAA issued several versions of the same bulletin, requiring a more stringent inspection. LET was to evaluate each glider's usage history and rule as to whether the glider could continue in service.

The latest FAA version has taken back the decision process from LET, but it essentially grounded every L13 until it passes an even more detailed US-based inspection. But the inspection has not yet been defined, so the entire fleet is in limbo until it is.

Our club owns two L13's (built in 1973) which we use for primary instruction. We performed the original inspections and found no cracks. We examined the aircraft logbooks and gathered the required information about number of flights, number of hours, ratio of solo vs. dual flights, ratio of aerotow vs. ground launches, number of aerobatic flights, damage and repair history etc. Since I'm the secretary my club and I retain the older logbooks, I took on the task of compiling the usage information. It was really interesting to look at the history of these gliders I have been flying: who owned them, what they accomplished in them, how many hours the pilots accumulated, the various minor and major damages, when they gliders changed hands (or wings!), how long they sat idle... each one has a story to tell. I think I'll write an article for our club newsletter with some of the more interesting facts about each one. I learned a bit about the Airworthiness Directive, repair, and documentation processes as well.

The glider community (at least the segment of it that does flight instruction) is in a spin at the moment. There are about 200 L13's in use in the U.S. I'm guessing that they are second only to the Schweizer 2-33 in popularity as a training glider, and I'm sure that some commercial operators use L13's for tourist rides as well. So a large part of the U.S. training fleet (in clubs and commercial ops) is grounded. Rumor has it that the larger commercial operators are working with the FAA and SSA to develop the new inspection and approval process. No one knows how long this will take, how much the new inspection procedure will cost, or who will do the evaluation.

Rumor has it that someone in Europe is looking at acquiring "new" never-used L13's that have been in storage in Russia, and selling them after appropriate refurbishing and updating; since the concern is fatigue and not age, theoretically these would be "safer".

So here's the dilemma: Does one failure justify permanently grounding an entire model of aircraft? Blaniks are not failing at in flight frequently. Was the accident aircraft an extreme case, i.e. used for extensive aerobatics? Was their hidden damage not caused by fatigue? We just don't know. Clubs like ours that rely on L13's have had to cancel training, and will lose members to other clubs/operations that fly other ships. On the other hand, if L13's are reaching the end of their useful life, we as operators need to be responsible and not fly them if they are dangerous. Usage records are not perfect - many operators did not record the type of launch, the number of occupants, the number of aerobatic flights, etc., they just recorded hours and flights. So any evaluation based on usage pattern will be quite subjective, and the evaluators will probably want to be very conservative. And developing a definitive inspection/testing procedure will be expensive.

For a more detailed history of these events, visit

Monday, September 06, 2010

Dual thermal flight over the Tehachapi Valley

Sunday afternoon we spent an hour or so troubleshooting an electrical problem in the PW5, and cleaning it out. This morning we put it in the trailer so it can be repositioned to another gliderport for the fall and winter.

I also got my Official Observer to sign my Silver duration forms so I can send them in to the SSA. We've each been traveling, so I hadn't seen him since my flight on July 4.

This morning I helped N prep and launch the Grob 103 for two instructional flights. Now he has been "signed off" to fly the Grob from the rear seat. Our club requires signoffs for different aircraft, seats, and locations, beyond what the FAA requires, in order to enhance safety and learning. After his second flight, I jumped into the front and we took off at 12:44. N did the takeoff, and I did the landing.

There were very few gliders up today, probably because originally the forecast was not so great. (Also, I think a lot of pilots use the last day of the holiday weekend to drive home if they live far away.) I think we thermalled with one and saw only one other.

We let off over the mountains at 8200' MSL and went back to where we had seen lift, but could not connect. We tried some ridge lift (wind was from the east) but it wasn't strong enough and we made our way back to the valley.

Fortunately we connected with decent thermals which twice took us back up to 7000-7500 feet. Not high enough to go exploring - even to the end of the valley - but high enough to have some fun. There was some other spotty lift which may have been a north-south convergence line but was not very organized. Once when we got high enough I tried for anabatic lift over the lowest ridge of the mountains, but it was not working well enough for me to turn and climb the next ridge.

So we came back and landed on 9L at one hour and 14 minutes. Landing from this direction enables us to roll right up to our tie-down, avoiding a long push in the heat.

Huh. As I'm writing this, a glider just took off to the west. Today was the only day in which the wind reversed itself. Some days it reverses many times and we need to push the lined-up gliders back and forth to reverse takeoff direction.

Look at my three posts from this weekend, and you'll see that the conditions and best flying locations were different each day. One thing for sure - flying at Tehachapi requires you to learn flexibility! I'm very pleased to have had good flights (if not very ambitious ones) all three days. A total of 5:18 in the air, but I can only log half of the dual flights as PIC time.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Shear line soaring

The NWS forecast called for winds gusting to 45 MPH so we thought we'd get shut down, but they never came. Just the usual moderate west winds, which actually can make for decent soaring in the valley. The wind enters the Tehachapi valley from the west around two sides of a mountain, and the colliding winds set up a convergence, commonly called a "shear line". I've tried to work it before but never had much luck.

Today another pilot wanted to fly dual with me in the Grob 103. We don't have an instructor this trip, so the newer pilots pair up with more experienced pilots and learn about flying this location, or get experience in the Grob, or whatever. T had had some flights in the Grob but is not signed off to fly it yet. He flew from the front and I from the back as PIC. Since I'm still working on becoming an instructor, it's good experience for both of us.

We released at 2800' AGL (7000 MSL) and fairly promptly found a thermal that took us up to nearly 8000 MSL. That seemed to be the top of the lift all day, both shear and thermal. We went back and forth and usually found narrow bands of lift along a northwest-southeast line. Often it was too narrow to circle in, so it was apparently mostly shear line. At times we could fly directly upwind and still gain altitude. That sounds like a really odd thing to be able to do without an engine, huh? But if the wind is coming at you and colliding with wind from another angle, it deflects upward and takes you up! Kind of magical.

We traded off flying from time to time. There were three or four other gliders in the area, and we all followed each other to the lifting areas. We saw a grass fire start and get put out a few minutes later, and observed how the wind carried the smoke different directions at different altitudes. Wind shear made visible!

We used soaring ravens to find lift, and we came within a hundred feet or so of a hawk, which quickly turned and dived away from us. It was brownish on top and black-and-white underneath, which in my bird book looks like a Rough-Legged Hawk. I'm still hoping to encounter an eagle in flight some time.

Eventually we got a bit tired and ran out of drinking water, so we came down after 2 hours and 8 minutes.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Mountain and valley flight at Tehachapi

I took off at 1:37 in the club's PW5. I let off at 3900' AGL (8100 MSL) in what I thought was good lift. I had to go back and search for it a bit, but soon I was climbing. That first thermal took me up to over 10,000. There were 4 or 5 gliders over the mountains, and we all used each others as markers for usable lift. I flew with BT, KMA, and Blue J at various time.

I had put my Li-On backup battery pack into the PW5 because the club's gel cell battery seemed to be discharged. I found that mine ran the instruments OK but I could not transmit well on the radio, and switched to my portable. I guess I should get a gel cell as a better backup - they're not that expensive.

We found that there was not much thermal lift but instead there seemed to be a convergence line along the top of the mountains. It was bumpy but worked well. The highest I got was 10,900 MSL, which is just about what the RUC forecast and Dr. Jack predicted.

I was able to use my oxygen tank with the ship's EDS system, which I had not been able to do the last couple of times. I think Greg replaced the O-ring on the regulator, and now it doesn't leak anymore. It's very cool - comes on automatically at 10,000 MSL.

Eventually I headed out toward Bear Mt. and a tour around the valley. As expected, I found no more significant lift. There was a little over the recent burn area, but not enough to work. So I eventually came back in, finishing up at just under two hours. My landing was really good and I rolled right up to where our other glider was parked. Actually the wind gets partial credit. Once the PW5 slows down, its tiny rudder doesn't let you override the tendency to "weathervane" into the wind. But it was just what I needed to roll off the right side of the runway.

All in all, a nice flight, if not very ambitious. Had I gotten up to 11,000 consistently, I could have headed north, but it just wasn't that strong.

Tonight my trailer is full of things being recharged: main battery, backup battery, PDA, and handheld radio.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Track of my 5-hour glider flight

Here's what a 5-hour flight that doesn't go anywhere looks like. It's not very sharp at this size, so click on it for a full-size image.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Wings Off, Wings On

Sometimes the real world intrudes on our pleasant hobby of flying aircraft without engines. Two aspects of the real world presented themselves recently. 1:We fly real aircraft with real risks. 2:We operate a geographically dispersed glider club, not an central operation.

In late June, we got word that the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had initiated an action regarding Blanik L13 gliders. Seems there was a crash somewhere in Europe in which a wing separated from the glider, and metal fatigue was a possible factor. (It's also possible that improper aerobatics overstressed the wing joint, but the final report has not been issued.) The manufacturer Aircraft Industries a.s. (which we know as LET) issued inspection instructions and limitations on aerobatics, to be carried out immediately. As of that date, the FAA had not issued any Airworthiness Directive.

Wings Off! Our club operates two Blanik L13's, so any grounding would put a halt to our training activities. The club sprang into action, getting copies of the instructions and gathering a crew to take off the wings to perform the inspection. I won't dare say "I told you so", but some of us mentioned that the FAA's instructions, if and when eventually issued, might differ from the EASA's, but being proactive seemed a good thing. On a Saturday morning, the crew took the wings off and an IA followed the EASA's instructions and documented the results. No fatigue found! Wings On!

About three weeks later, the FAA issued an Airworthiness Directive. The inspection instructions were basically the same, but specified using a more precise method which we had not known to use the first time around, so the previous inspection is not acceptable. Wings Off! We borrowed the appropriate equipment for the IA to do the inspection again, and rounded up a crew again. (It takes about 4-5 people about an hour to take them off and put them on again.) No fatigue found! Wings On!

The EASA and FAA directives both included a reporting requirement: they want to know the service and damage history of all L13's, to help determine whether usage limits or further inspection requirements might be required, and to help determine if and when to lift or revise the limitations on aerobatics. Filling out the required report means going through all the logbooks looking for damage entries, and looking for dates and serial numbers of any major replacements. Here's where the dispersed nature of our club comes into play. Since being displaced from Hemet, the Maintenance Officer keeps the most recent logbooks for all aircraft, and the Secretary keeps the club archives, which includes the old logbooks. This request came in when the Secretary (me) was on a week-long business trip, so getting the old info had to wait. The old logbooks revealed certain minor damage and repairs to be reported on the form. Scanning the most recent logbooks, the MO find that the wings were replaced some years ago on one ship, before we owned it. The serial numbers of the new wings were not recorded in the logbook, and can only be determined by looking inside the wings. Would have been nice to know this before either of the previous two wing inspections. (I'm guilty as well... I saw that on the form, but had no idea the wings had ever been replaced. So once again, it will be Wings Off, Wings On...

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Short flights under cloudy skies

Southern California has been having an unusually cool summer. We usually have "June Gloom" which means a thick layer of clouds extends inland from the coast and doesn't burn off until midday. This year it started in mid-May and continued off and on through most of July, with only one hot week so far. Saturday's forecast was for scattered cirrus, but over Elsinore there was a layer of cloud that was almost thick enough to be called stratus, at about 11,000 feet, which blocked a lot of the sunlight. The temperatures aloft and a forecast inversion indicated that lift would only go to about 5,000' at most even if got hot on the ground.

It was hot, in the mid-90's F, and humid for our area. I flew at 12:30 and got about 25 minutes. I let off at 4300' MSL and got lift up to about 4700'. The lift was probably partly thermal, but it was narrow enough that I began to suspect light ridge lift. The wind was from the southeast, which is unusual for that site, so I tried working the ridges that faced that wind. Didn't find much, but it was fun to try.

Another fellow flew at 13:30 and got about 35 minutes. The cloud layer retreated about 2:00-2:30 but none of us were motivated enough to try it again. I stayed for most of the afternoon helping to launch and retrieve the gliders, and talking with the student pilots and their parents.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

INTERdependence Day

Monday's conditions were even better than Sunday's. Winds were predicted to be light, thermals of 600-700 fpm up to 13,000' MSL in the Tehachapi area and higher to the north, with some possibility of cumulus clouds. Since I dominated the PW5 yesterday, I was not planning to fly today, but other club members were planning some moderate cross-country flights.

One of the interesting things about soaring is that although most of one's flying is done solo or at most in pairs, it's still a group activity. A soaring club is a cooperative group that works together to help each other learn to fly, to fly for fun and experience, and to expand their knowledge and skill. Stephen Covey says "Interdependence is a higher value than independence," and a soaring club is a great example of how working together can lift everyone a little higher. Here are just a few of the ways we all helped each other and learned from each other throughout this weekend:
  • C and R showed P and M some of the local landout sites.
  • M helped L put the wings on his ship.
  • L and M repaired a broken battery wire while R prepared to fly.
  • R installed a connector on an oxygen mask hose while P and M waited in line to launch.
  • L filled the O2 tank while C prepared to fly.
  • R charged the batteries for both ships overnight.
  • P took M on his first high-altitude glider flight - also his first cross-country flight - also his longest flight - and boosted M's interest in soaring after some frustrating delays in training.
  • We all pushed and pulled the gliders from one end of the runway to the other when the wind shifted direction... twice...
  • R showed P how to use the new Borgelt B400 vario in the Grob 103.
  • C loaned his van to pilots' wives for activities in town.
  • R loaned his truck to L to haul equipment around.
  • J loaned his multimeter to L for some testing.
  • R showed C how to use the memory mode on the PW5 radio.
  • L loaned his tools for various repairs.
  • R loaned P his radio charger.
  • All members and their wives pitched in for some delicious dinners.
And so on and so on.

C got a 2.5 hour flight to over 14,000 feet. P and M got a 3-hour flight out over Kelso Valley and back. L went farther and faster but had to return due to an oxygen system failure. J and B and D and others had fun flights into the southern Sierras. A very successful weekend trip!

Independence Day - 5 hour flight!

Sunday morning's weather was much better than Saturday's. The forecast was for relatively calm winds, top of the boundary layer at 11-12,000 feet, strong thermals, but no CU possible. I planned to get an early start to try for a five-hour flight. While I prepped the plane, a couple of the guys repaired a broken battery wire. I was shooting for an 11:00 launch, but actually took off at 11:15 and released from tow in lift at 11:23. I immediately made a 360-degree turn to "notch" the flight trace on the Volkslogger (this enables the flight reviewer to see when you departed from the tow plane).

Thermals were present but not really strong right away. I used a combination of thermal and anabatic lift to get up to around 9,300' and stayed there for quite some time. (If you're not familiar with anabatic lift, search my previous articles and you'll find some descriptions. It's really amazing when it's working!) Over the next hour or so, the thermals off the mountain tops got stronger, up to 10,000' and ultimately over 11,000' MSL.

I had made a decision that my priority was simply a 5-hour flight duration, and that I would not go cross-country. Here's why: let's say I was between landout sites when the lift started to taper off, and I had to choose to head to a safe landing site at 4 and a half hours. That would defeat the purpose of the duration flight. I have not had enough XC flights to have a lot of confidence in pressing forward looking for lift. By staying within gliding distance of the airport, I would have a better chance of staying up as long as the lift would keep me. Boring, perhaps, but I don't get many chances to have the plane to myself all day in good conditions.

I had a few mechanical/electrical problems. The variometer in the PW5 is not showing lift correctly and overstating sink. I relied on my clip-on audio vario, and the simulated vario on my PDA/GPS, and of course the seat of my pants. The vario seemed to get better later in the flight, so maybe we have some dirt in the lines or something. My PDA lost its GPS feed from the Volkslogger and I had to reset it. The second time it did that, I switched it over to my plug-in GPS instead. But it still kept shutting itself down - I think a power-saving setting is turned on. Eventually I figured that out and just made sure to tap something on the screen every 3o minutes or so. And in that mode it didn't leave a "trace" on the screen, which is handy for getting back to thermals. I couldn't find the menu setting to fix that without looking down for too long, so I gave up on it. That's an item to add to my checklist: verify all the important PDA settings, especially since I had restored the software a while back.

Physically, the flight was not too taxing. I know, lots of people have made much longer flights, but my previous longest was less than 3 hours. There's very little room to stretch and move about in a glider cockpit! My shoulder got sore after an hour or so, so I varied my grip and flew left-handed for a while. One foot went to sleep a couple times, so I let out the pedals a bit. I thought my back would get sore, but it really wasn't bad. I took along a couple of trail mix bars and munched on them a couple hours apart. I didn't really get bored. I went to a few different mountains and ridges... I took some pictures... sometimes there were other gliders to thermal with. I experimented with very slow flight into the wind (a technique I read about recently and want to try out some more). I checked in with the ground every hour. And of course I had the PDA gremlins to keep me busy.

About 4 and a half hours into the flight, it was all looking good. I was still between 9 and 10 thousand feet, and it can take 20 minutes or so to get from 9,000' down to the airport at 4,200. But promptly at 4:00, the lift machine shut down, at least on the north side of the mountains where I needed to be to glide back to Mountain Valley. The tops of the mountains were now getting too close, and I had to move down to lower peaks. Based on the wind direction, I tried some ridge soaring when the thermals were nowhere to be found. I tried all of the lower peaks, but they were no longer working, and soon I was over the valley with - maybe - enough altitude to stretch it out to five hours. I needed to make it to 4:23 p.m. I made sure to stay upwind of the airport. I heard a couple of blips on the vario, and tried a turn or two, but whatever lift was under me was pretty weak. By the time I entered the pattern I was at about 5 hours and 2 minutes after release. I landed at 5 hours and 4 minutes after release - way too close! (Total flight time was 5:15.)

A couple of the guys from the club came out to meet me and pointed to their watches trying to convince me I had miscalculated and landed an hour early. Nice try, guys! When one of them wanted to help me take off the parachute, I knew something was up. They've always owed me a soaking, since they didn't toss a bucket of water on me after my first solo flight. But to my surprise I got a shower of champagne, for the first time in my life! (By the way, that was a sticky mess to wash off the glider the next morning.)

Unfortunately, it appears this flight may not qualify for my Silver duration. I mis-read, or misunderstood, or forgot about the rule regarding altitude loss. I won't get into it all here, but I may have to do this again for it to count. If so, I'll do it as a cross-country flight, now that I know I can do a long-duration flight. I know I did the best I could with this day's conditions: had I taken off earlier, or let off lower, the lift would not have been there. And I worked every bit of lift I could find right up to the end. So whether this qualifies for the Silver or not, I did have a 5-hour flight and learned a few things.

Here's a a big thank-you to the club members who helped me out, and who let me have the ship for the whole day, and celebrated with me when I landed!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Independence Day weekend at Tehachapi - Saturday

Several of us are at Tehachapi (Mountain Valley Airport) for the holiday weekend. We'd planned to keep the PW5 and the Grob 103 tied down here for the summer, available for anyone who wants to come up for a weekend. Unfortunately it was fairly windy (not so much as to be dangerous, but enough to tear up the thermals), so that's where they stayed on Saturday - tied down.

A couple of the club members had never been to any of the well-known landout sites to the north of here, so four of us got in my truck and visited several of them. It's very helpful to see a site from the ground and get an idea of the landmarks, obstacles, slope, ground access etc.
First up was Cantil, a broad empty field right off the paved road. It looks really good, and it's nice to have another site now that the Honda Track access road is closed.

We stopped briefly at Wide Spot, and all agreed it's useless as a landing site. It was always marginal, and now there's a big sign at the north end. So cross this one off the list.

Brad's Landing Place was next. This is a concrete-covered aqueduct a few miles off the paved road. We checked out two or three different roads in to it and found that the road right next to Robber's Roost is the easiest and shortest. We also found a secodn section of the aqueduct that also looks landable. I'll measure it on Google Earth and compare it to the section already documented.

We visited Inyokern airport and met some of the glider and tow pilots there.

Cinder Cone dry lake is a nice long lake, very smooth. It would be possible to aerotow from it. The road in is a bit rocky.

Coso Junction dry lake is also very smooth, and the road in is shorter and smoother. Both Cinder Cone and Coso currently have wind socks.

Maps show an airstrip on the other side of the highway from Coso Junction, so we checked it out. It's really just a field, and appears to be on private property. We don't think it's usable.

Sunday has started out nearly calm, so I'm hoping it will turn out to be soarable.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Tehachapi Day 3 - Mystery Partly Solved

Very few people flying today, so hard to tell if anyone stayed up. It was a bit breezier but not bad. Conditions didn't look good for a retry of my long flight for Silver. I dawdled trying to decide whether to try to fly shear line (due to the wind) or wait for it to heat up. Someone asked me, "What's that little box on your hat?" I replied that it is a mini audio variometer which I can use if the one in the ship fails (or in Blaniks that don't have built-in audio varios.) She asked me, "Do they fail often?" I said no, but I had the whole battery fail once (the PW5 has no pneumatic-only vario), and I had definitely used it then. (See my first Dust Devil Dash post.)

One club member stayed up about a half hour, working shear line lift at about 6000' MSL, so I figured I'd at least give it a try. As I was pushing out, he came back, which was not a great sign.

During the tow, I noticed the vario needle swinging wildly, something I had seen yesterday but attributed to the bumps we flew through. I let off at 3000' AGL, well upwind, where I thought I would start hunting for shear line (convergence) lift. But something wasn't right. I was seeing sink on the vario, but it didn't feel like I was sinking nor was the altimeter unwinding. I thought to turn on my clip-on electronic vario and sure enough, it beeped to indicate lift. I also checked the "Vario" number on the display of my PDA/GPS, and it showed "up" as well. (Not sure if it's calculated from GPS info, or fed from the pressure sensor in the Volkslogger.)

So I had conclusive proof that the vario or the pneumatic system that drives it was faulty. Yesterday's terrible flights were not entirely my fault. Thinking I was in sink, I sped up to try to get out of it, which only made things worse, since the PW5's polar curve drops off pretty steeply with speed. I had slowed down to minimum sink speed a couple of times to try to reduce the drag and see if I was fooling myself, but maybe at those times I really was in sink, because it didn't help. I don't know why I didn't think of checking against the other vario and the GPS yesterday - I guess I believed the instrument too much.

I ignored the bad instruments and flew by feel and by my clip-on vario. I found some moderate lift and then a halfway decent thermal. I worked it back up to 7100' MSL, nearly my release altitude. I couldn't seem to get higher than that. I don't think it was shear line lift, because it was wide enough to circle in pretty consistently. I left it in search of other lift, but kept coming back to it to "tank up". Eventually I went downwind to circle under another glider that was higher than me, but that didn't work out and I came back for a landing after 33 minutes. I didn't care that it was fairly short - I had solved yesterday's mystery and successfully worked the lift on a not-so-great day. (And I experimented with another way of working lift in wind, but that's a story for another blog post.)

My landing on runway 27R was terrific - really smooth touchdown, and I worked hard to get a very long straight rollout with a light gusty wind about 40 degrees off my nose. That's tricky in the PW5, with its non-castering wheels and tiny rudder. The runway was completely clear so I was able to roll all the way to the west end, and use the favorable crosswind to roll off gently, wings level, into the dirt right in front of my tie-down spot. Nice!

Back on the ground, another club member and I worked on diagnosing the problem. To make a long story short, we found a kink in the Total Energy probe line, and think it's pinched or caught somewhere under the cockpit floor. Another member who's staying over at Tehachapi is going to pull the floor and look for problems.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Tehachapi Day 2 - Skunked Twice

My plan for today was to try for a very long local flight in the PW5, if weather conditions were favorable. I need a 5 hour flight to complete my Silver badge, and this was the first opprtunity where the glider availability, my preparation, and the weather might all come together. It looked possible according to the forecasts and models, with decent lift as high as 10,000' in the Tehachapi area (but not very far north), and light winds from the east: up to 15 knots on the ground, but only about 5 aloft. I planned to stay local if possible - I didn't see any reason to complicate the goal by going cross-country.

For a long flight like that, I made sure to take plenty of water, some snacks, fully charged battery, and a full oxygen tank. I planned to take off by about 11:30. A few other gliders launced before me, but no one had yet stayed up very long. I took off to the west (runway 27) at 11:15. I thought the tow pilot would take me over the mountains, but instead he took me over the valley upwind of the airport. The vario was all over the place - way up and way down. We encountered some lift, and I let off at 3100' AGL. I did a tight circle to "notch" the flight trace and to work the lift. Nothing but sink everywhere I went. I couldn't get up over the mountains so I tried to explore the valley. The sink was anywhere from 6 to 10 knots. Very soon I was forced to land, I think after 13 minutes.

I pushed the glider aside to think about the conditions and see if anyone else was staying up. Soon there was a line of about 8 waiting to launch. I was advised to try to get away from the valley and head north, that by this time of day often the thermals die off. This time I asked to go over the mountains, as I felt the chances were better there because I could see a couple of gliders. I took off to the east at 12:25. At 3000' AGL there was nothing. I held out until 3800' and let off in some lift. Again, I could not get back into the lift. I tried the bald spot - nothing. I tried the ridges, looking for anabatic lift (unlikely) or orographic (more likely). Sink over the foothills. Sink over the valley. At 2000' AGL I found one weak little thermal that I worked for quite a while but it only gave me 100'. This flight only lasted 27 minutes.

Another pilot took off in the PW5 at 2:07 and stayed up for two hours and reached 11,700' MSL. And some guys went up at 2:00 in the Grob and got 90 minutes. So I guess I was just unlucky.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tehachapi Day 1

Several club members are at Tehachapi with the Grob 103 and PW5. I spent the morning and early afternoon doing maintenance on the Grob and figuring out the new Borgelt vario in it.

One club member brought a friend who wanted to go for a ride. We took off and let off in good lift. Although I caution newbies about thermal flight (see May 9), he wanted the whole experience, so I worked it for a while, gaining 900 feet pretty quickly. The view of the desert was spectacular! Although I kept to 30 degree banks, he did get queasy so I straightened out and cruised around over the mountains. We encountered two other gliders thermaling together but did not join them. I was able to fly through little bits of lift without circling, but eventually had to go out over the valley.

My passenger was feeling uncomfortable - said his hands were going to sleep - so I pulled the spoilers and brought us down. There was a bit of crosswind which made the last bit of final approach interesting, but it was not too bad. The runway was clear so we were able roll all the way to our tiedown area. Total flight time was 28 minutes.

Tomorrow is supposed to be even better conditions. If all goes well, I'm going to attempt a 5 hour flight in the PW5 to complete my Silver badge. My longest flight so far was about 2:50 I think. I won't go very far from the airport - probably just around and around the valley. The goal is to stay up, avoiding sink, not to do a cross-country flight over variable terrain I've already completed the distance and altitude requirements. I'll take along food, lots of water, oxygen, and the Volkslogger for proof. Music would be nice!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Landout / survival kit

At our club meeting yesterday, I led a discussion about landout & survival kits, and opened up my kit to show one can look like. The idea is that when you're engaging in cross-country soaring, there are several scenarios that could place you in the wilderness on your own for some time, so you should take along some gear to make your stay more comfortable... or even survivable. And even on our "local" flights, we go over some fairly remote areas of the Santa Ana Mountains. A bailout or crash there could mean a long walk or an overnight stay. My kit is full of stuff I'll probably never need, but it's all so small and light that I decided it's worth including I take the kit along on nearly every flight in the PW5.

There are three scenarios I can think of where landout/survival gear would come in handy:
  • A routine, safe land out on a remote airstrip, dry lake bed, or other flat place in the desert or mountains. Even if the crew knows where you are, if it's late in the day, you may be staying overnight. In this case, you and the glider and the kit are together. Landout gear is important to protect the glider. Survival gear can make you more comfortable, first aid gear is probably not needed.

  • A survivable crash. These happen... pilots fly into trees or get forced down by mountain downdrafts. Rescue can take some time. In this case, you probably have access to the kit. Landout gear is not important, but first aid supplies might be, along with survival gear.

  • A bailout, due to collision or mechanical failure. You may or may not land close to the glider and your kit, so in this case your "survival kit" includes whatever minimal stuff is on your person, and your parachute and whatever's attached to it.
There are lots of resources on the web and in books and magazines to help you select landout and survival gear for your kit, so I won't go into the "why" for any of this stuff. If you have any questions or comments, please post a reply.

All this stuff fits into a single cloth bag which fits under/behind the seat in the PW5. It would just as easily fit in the cargo area behind the rear seat in our Blanik L13 or Grob 103. It weighs 4 pounds (of which 1 whole pound is a windbreaker jacket) and takes up 0.4 cubic feet. I started with a survival kit and a first aid kit I bought at a sporting goods store. I added tent stakes and ropes (the "landout" part), a flashlight, some granola bars, and personal items such as contact lenses.

I always wear "cargo" pants which provide some additional pockets. I should get a very small bag which fits into a leg pocket, and transfer some of the very small essential stuff into to cover the bailout scenario. There are also small packs that can strap onto a parachute, and I should look into that as well. On one side of the chute I strap my Personal Locator Beacon, but there's room on the other strap.

Here's the list of what's currently in my bag:

Main bag
Stakes - 2
Ropes - 3
LED flashlight
Windbreaker (stuffed in quart Ziploc bag)

Waterproof bag - commercial survival kit
Small multitool
Light stick
Bright vinyl tape
Fire starting sticks - 2
Candle - heat-resistant
Tie-wraps - 2
Space blanket
Pad of paper
Tape strips
Plastic bag

Smaller Bag
Chemical pocket warmer
CD for signal mirror
Batteries for flashlight
Space blanket
Sunscreen packets - 2
Wipe packets - 3
Vinyl tape
Contact lenses
Eye drops
Trail mix bars – 3

Little stuff in Ziploc Bag
Waterproof matches
Golf pencil
$20 bill
Nylon rope
Safety pins
Razor blades
Fishing line

First Aid Kit - store-bought
Gauze pads - 2
Non-adherent pads - 2
Various adhesive bandages - 12
Tape strips - 2
Alcohol pads - 4
Iodine pads - 2
Sting pads - 2
Antibiotic ointment - 2
Advil - 8
First aid pamphlet
Gauze strip
More band-aids and alcohol pads


Wow, I just noticed that I've written 250 blog posts since starting this blog in 2005.

Coincidentally, I recently logged my 250th glider flight (in March). I started flight training in April 2003.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

An ideal intro flight

A longtime friend is visiting from out of state, and she wants to go for a glider flight. She's not exactly the adventurous type, so I'm a little surprised, but I'm always glad when a friend is interested. A first-time glider flight, especially for someone who isn't already a pilot or looking to become one, is kind of a balancing act for the pilot. I want them to have fun, with no motion sickness, but I also want it to be longer than just a "sled ride" and for them to experience soaring upward in lift. But working lift often involves steep turns which can be scary and induce motion sickness. So the question is always: to glide or to soar? To take off early when it's smooth but soaring isn't likely, or to wait until the thermals start but it can be bumpy?

Saturday's weather looked promising, with clear skies, mid-80's, no cloud cover, and moderate lift forecast: 3 knots of lift to about 5,300' MSL. We got to the airport early in case I had to wash and/or preflight the Blanik, or in case a number of us decided to assemble the second Blanik (still on the trailer after our winching trip). As it turned out, another member had washed it, and he and a new student did the preflight, and there weren't enough members to assemble the other one, so we ended up with a lot of time. The instructor had three students for the day, and some paperwork to do with them, so we decided I would take my passenger up first. After waiting in line for a couple ships, we took off at 11:37, pretty early for any thermal activity.

The takeoff was a bit slow and the climb-out was a LOT slow. Usually we climb to about 400-500 feet and turn south, but this time we kept going straight out over the lake and were only 300-350 feet AGL. Had we had a rope break there, we would have made it back to flat open land but probably not to the actual runway. I decided to hang in there and we eventually climbed normally up over the mountains. Later I talked with the tow pilot and he said we seemed to go through area of sinking air. Plus we had a tailwind instead of the usual headwind, so all together it made for a very flat flight path. Once we got onto the southbound leg over the hills, we started getting some turbulence which I hoped would indicate lift. My passenger was enjoying it so far.

As we approached 3000' AGL over the mountains we got into some lift. Between the towplane climbing and the lifting air, it was nearly 1000 feet per minute up, and it continued for several seconds, so I pulled off and turned into it. What luck! It was pretty strong, up to about 300-400 fpm at times, and very broad. Whether it was thermal or convergence, it was big. I was able to stay in it with about a 15-degree bank. That was the best of both worlds: a gentle bank for my passenger's first glider flight, and lift to keep us up for a while. We took that up about 800 feet very easily (to 5,100 feet, very close to the thermal forecast). With nearly 4000' in the tank, we could afford to fly around and enjoy the view. Although the tow plane went by once with a Schweizer, we never saw them again - we had the whole sky to ourselves. We never hit any serious sink, and we found 1 to 3 knots of lift occasionally, so it was a pretty relaxing flight. Jody was enjoying the flight, and the lift we found after that first boomer was weaker, and I didn't want to push it by trying to aggressively work the smaller thermals.

So I eventually turned back after about 35 minutes - I knew we had student pilots waiting to get in the air. Of course, as I started the 45-degree leg we encountered more lift and I had to use spoilers on the downwind leg to get us down. My landing was smooth and the rollout was nice, although I had to hold a fair amount of right rudder and aileron to keep aligned - that tailwind had turned a bit and was now about 30 degrees off our nose, but gentle. We rolled all the way up for an easy pushback, and ended up with a 43-minute total flight.

That strong and wide lift at 11:45 in the morning was really amazing, and made for a terrific guest flight that was long enough to be fun.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Winch weekend - Day 3 - PW5 PTT x2

Today several of us plan to fly the PW5. After preflighting it, I spend some time with private pilots M and S explaining the features of the Borgelt B50 computer and the MicroAir radio. We also spend some time with the winch launching section of the PW5 manual. Important points include adjusting the seat position and the trim according to the pilot's weight. S is heavier than M or me... one concern we have is that with lighter pilots, the way the wheels and the CG hook are arranged, it's quite possible that the moment of acceleration could cause the cockpit to rotate up and the tail boom to slam down. The manual has some advice on how to hold the stick.

And then there's this interesting comment: "During the steep climb the stick forces are of small value." Some winching experts have pointed out that stable gliders tend to climb at the angle that is the most efficient, i.e. the horizontal stabilizer will tend to orient the wings directly into the relative wind to achieve stability, and so the angle of attack and speed will tend to become optimized. They claim you can unhand the stick and a stable glider will climb well on its own. (I won't try that for quite a while!) The PW5's elevator is really small compared to the wings and the horizontal stabilizer, so it can't override the orienting effect. More on that later.

We set up today on the main runway, launching to the west due to the wind direction. We get an earlier start, which is good for practicing, but it also means the lift isn't working for the first few flights. A visiting glider pilot (not a member) wants to go for a ride, so I go up with him in the Blanik (me in front, him in back). He's been a winch launch passenger once before, so it's not all new to him. We get a good launch, but with no headwind and since I'm not terribly aggressive in the climb yet, we only get up to 900' AGL. We turn left to look for lift, but we get into 5 knot sink right away, so essentially we have to turn back and never get out of the pattern. We come in for a good landing and roll right up to the launching point. Fun, but short. No one else was finding more than 1-2 knots of lift this early in the day, so I don't think we had much of a chance for a longer flight anyway.

Later in the day I set up for a flight in the PW5. As expected, the tail boom comes down, but not very hard. If this winch was as aggressive in the first two seconds as the OCSA winch is, this rotation could be an issue. Once I get off the ground, I get into a slight PIO (which means "pilot-induced oscillation", pitching up and down due to not controlling perfectly). It's not much as PIO's go, and only lasts for about two cycles. But as I mentioned yesterday, if you don't pitch up at least a little bit right away to present a load on the cable, you can overrun it. My two seconds of horizontal flight getting out of the PIO is too long, and I see the parachute slip below me to the left, so I release just before someone on the radio calls "abort, abort". I make a safe and smooth landing on the right side of the runway (to avoid the cable), and roll out about two thirds of the way down toward the winch. This is what we call a "PTT" or "Premature Termination of Tow". It's a long walk back with the glider behind the truck.

After a few Blanik launches and our club pres in his PIK, I'm up again in the PW5. This time my takeoff is smooth and I rotate up and start a pretty good climb. Someone on the radio calls to the winch driver "more power, more power". Before long my airspeed is 67 and flirting with 70 knots. The maximum allowed according to the manual is 65, so I start pulling back to try to adjust the speed (forgetting for a moment the statement "During the steep climb the stick forces are of small value."). Probably my next move would be to call for less speed, but suddenly the speed drops off and I hear/feel the cable release. Bummer - PTT #2. Hmmm... I can't see the chute or the line by this time, but I can't imagine that I overran it at this angle. But there's no time to analyze it: I'm at 400' AGL. That's high enough to turn around for a downwind landing, so that's what I plan to do. I have had a rope break at 300' during auto-towing solo in a Blanik, so I've done this before.

I nose over and ensure I have flying speed. There was very little crosswind when I took off, so it doesn't matter much which way I go. Since the normal pattern is left-hand, I turn left and do a 270-degree turn and get lined up on the runway. Hmmm... The next Blanik is already lined up at the launching point. I know that when you have a PTT from an auto-tow or winch launch, where you go up steeply, you can't really land in the distance available back to the starting point. You would have to descend at the same 40+ degree angle you went up at, and that's not likely in a slippery glass ship. Maybe in a Blanik with flaps and a big slip, but not in this glider. Hmmm... passing over the launching point to the other end of the runway is not an option either, because our pres is landing his PIK there. There's a nice wide taxiway, just as long as the runway, so that's the obvious choice. Since I'm already lined up on the runway, I S-turn to the left and line up again. There's nothing in the way, and I make a nice smooth landing and roll to a stop about 100 feet beyond the launching point. No problem. But there's no way I could have landed back on the runway without overrunning the launch point. It's nice to have options!

So far today I have employed two of the three PTT landing procedures.

I discuss the flight with S, and can't quite figure out why it released. People on the ground thought my climb angle looked good. My slight pulling up and backing off on the stick to adjust the speed shouldn't have dropped the line very much. I'd be ready to go again after a waiting for Blanik or two to launch. But then the winch guys call in on the radio: we're done for the day due to a failed universal joint. Later on I see the U-joint pieces in the hangar - an old repair failed and it spun itself apart. That occurred during my launch, so now at least I know the cause of the sudden power loss and back-release.

By now it's 2:00 in the afternoon, so we break for lunch and tear down the gliders... and change a flat tire on one of the trailers. It was fun while it lasted, but the lift was weaker than expected so no one really "got away" today. The last of us leave the airport about 6:00. Hot and dusty, and grateful to the host club, we drive off into the sunset.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Winch weekend - Day 2 - Lots of Flights

The weather yesterday included some small cumulus clouds indicating that there's some moisture left over from last week's storm. I'm hoping that will stick around, since today (Saturday) is supposed to be even warmer. It doesn't turn out that way. There are some decent thermals, and a few pilots get away from the airport and get up to about 6,000 MSL or so. But it's all "blue", meaning no clouds to mark the thermals. And they seem to be strong enough to work if you're about 1,000 feet or so AGL. But most of our focus today is on winch training, refining techniques, and a few guest rides. We haven't done any winching for a few months, so even those who have sign-offs like to go up once with an instructor.

We interleave our flights with those of the local club; they're flying a Schweizer 2-22 and a Blanik L13 like ours. We set up on a north-south runway that's about 3000' or so long. In theory you could get to about 1,500', and I think several flights achieved 1,200 to 1,300. It depends on how steeply the pilot climbs, which is somewhat dependent on experience. It also depends on the winch providing the right speed at the right time, which is partly experience on the part of the winch driver, partly the power and smoothness of the engine and transmission, and partly ESP. The winch is so far away, I don't think they can really see how the glider is doing. More modern winches have a "constant tension" mechanism which smooths this out, but our clubs don't have such devices.

I have had a winch signoff for some time, and have flown several flights with instructors since then, but have not had the opportunity to launch either solo or as PIC without a CFI. Another pilot and I take one of the early launches, with me doing the flying from the front seat. The launch goes well, but I'm not very aggressive with my climb angle, so we only get to 700' AGL. That's not really enough altitude to go hunting for a thermal, so I turn back toward the starting point, intending to make an abbreviated pattern unless we stumble into something really good. But we get right into bad sink instead, and really soon we're down to 400' AGL and not in a great position for a standard pattern. I work out kind of a base leg without losing too much altitude, and then as I get lined up for final, we're in some lift. So I find myself at about 400', midfield, and needing to slip off altitude to land in the second half of the runway. The Blanik slips well, so I get it down and stopped but slightly into the dirt overrun at the end of the runway. (One thing none of us realized until later is that the last few hundred feet of the runway is downhill a bit, so that doesn't help with the stopping.)

Now that I have had time to think about it, if a launch is less than "pattern altitude" it might be best to just stay right around the release point of the runway looking for lift. That way if it doesn't pan out you could just turn around into a final approach. The turnaround time for the winch cable is such that no one will be taking off right away to create a conflict.

My next flight is with our CFI. This launch my angle is a bit more aggressive, and we get up to 1000' AGL before it back-releases. We snoop around and find some decent lift (up to 700 feet per minute at times) that takes us up another 1300' or so. We're not really looking to get away, just work on the launch and landing, so when the lift doesn't take us up very high we come back in about 15 minutes.

Late in the day, of the other pilots S is ready to try the PW5. The first launch doesn't go according to plan. Shortly after taking off, before he starts to rotate into his climb, the parachute inflates and is dragging the ground, and the glider passes it, so S releases and lands straight ahead, nearly all the way down the runway. It was a clean aborted launch, but we're trying to figure out why the line and the chute lagged. The way we figure it, the PW5 is 200 pounds lighter than a Blanik, and has only one occupant, and is very slippery. Once it's airborne and loses the rolling friction of the wheels, and is still in ground effect, it has little drag, so if there's the slightest loss of tension in the line, the parachute can inflate and dragging the line down, and the glider can then overrun it. Once the glider rotates, the wing angling through the air presents a much bigger load (and drag). So it would be important to climb, at least a little, shortly after takeoff. We're pretty conservative about not rotating into the steep climb until we're a hundred feet or more off the ground, so there's a fine line between rotating too early and too late. More on this in tomorrow's post. S takes off again later, and all goes well... I think he released at about 1500' the second time.

Despite not getting started until close to noon, and a 40-minute wait when the winch blows a radiator hose clamp, we get in about a dozen launches of our ships and the other club does quite a few as well.

Winch weekend - Day 1

The club is going out to a sleepy desert airport for a weekend of winch launching. We will take our own winch and also link up with the local club that flies there. We're taking one Blanik L13, our PW5, and one private ship.

We start arriving about midday. When 5 or 6 guys have arrived, we assemble the Blanik. There's always one or two pins that seem to be hard to get in... This time it's a drag pin and the pin that holds the stabilizers down. But we get it done, and one of the newer club members gets to learn how it goes together.

By "sleepy" I don't mean run down... Quite the contrary. This county airport is well laid out and marked, with two runways and taxiways. But there's not much traffic. All day Friday I think there are 2 or 3 airplane takeoffs, and a helicopter drops in for 5 minutes. That suits us fine, and we lay out our winch line on 3000 feet of the longest taxiway. We fuss with the radios and line up the Blanik.

But things never really get off the ground. The winch doesn't have power at the right speeds. The glider starts off briskly but the overruns the line and has to abort. Two out of three times, the steel bridle gets tangled up in the main wheel. Not good! Eventually we scrub the operation for the day and discuss the problem over dinner. (This all sounds so simple... Actually it's about four hours of driving back and forth, talking on radios and cell phones, and moving equipment around.)

Turns out that a recent modification to the winch transmission is not working properly. Under load, it always wants to shift to second gear, and we need third gear for the climb. It's not the kind of thing that can be fixed here, and the member who works on it has somewhere to be tomorrow, so he takes the winch home.

Tomorrow the local club will be here with their winch, so at least we're not grounded for the weekend.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Gremlins and Gotcha's

I guess I really wasn't meant to fly today. A long series of mechanical and electrical "gremlins", and logistical "gotcha's" made for a not-so-successful day at the airfield.
  • I bought a new battery for my handheld radio a few weeks ago, because it seemed that the battery was not holding a charge very long. I usually put it on the charger about 24 hours before I'm going to fly, and I check the battery voltage with a voltmeter on the morning of the flying day, so if it didn't get a full charge for some reason at least I know and I can use alkalines instead. This morning the new battery was dead as a doornail. Zero volts. The charger is putting out, so I'm not sure what happened, and will have to test it this week. At our old field the radio was mostly a convenience but at Elsinore it's a necessity. I'm going to change my routine and charge the radio as soon as I get home, and check it promptly, so I'll have time to charge again if necessary. And now that I think of it, the new battery is significantly bigger than the old one, so it probably needs more than 24 hours to charge anyway. Gremlin #1.
  • This morning the club was breaking in a New Tow Pilot. That's a good thing - they need more of them. I think he was already qualified as a glider tow pilot, but was just new to this type of airplane and new to this club's location and operating procedures. Along about 10:00 they started preflighting the tow plane, and it seems that NTP needed to do 10 (count 'em - 10) takeoffs and landings to be qualified in this type. So glider pilot #1 sat for about an hour while NTP did about 7 cycles. Another tow pilot eventually jumped in and launched a few gliders. Later NTP did about 3 more cycles and then started towing gliders. It was interesting listening to the lead tow pilot coaching NTP over the radio. Apparently only one towplane was available for use today, so this caused a big delay in glider ops. I don't think the first glider took off until about noon. Gotcha #1.
  • I recently got a new SUV which I can use to tow glider trailers. I have not towed anything with it yet, so I planned to hook it up to our PW5 trailer and see how level it sits, and tow it around a bit to see how it handles. The hooking-up part was fine - the weight of the trailer caused the vehicle hitch to drop less spend a quarter inch. But the trailer had a completely flat tire, so no opportunity to actually tow it around. Gremlin #2.
  • Since our club instructor had about three people to fly with, I decided to fly the PW5 instead of a Blanik. We recently relocated it here to Lake Elsinore, and I have not flown it yet. The day was shaping up to have some OK lift, with some CU clearly marking it. So after a quick lunch I started prepping the PW5. The battery was not on a charger as I had thought it might be (the PW5 had been flown once since moving here). So I checked the battery with my voltmeter and it looked good. All went fine with the preflight except that the nosewheel tire was low - VERY low. Gremlin #3. No problem, I now bring a compressor to the field. Except... the little hub crowds the valve stem. There's NO way to get a connector onto it without a valve stem extension. At Hemet, we kept some of them in the flight shack. At Elsinore... well, most of our gear is currently elsewhere. I asked one of the LESC leaders - nope, they don't have any. Ask the guy with the repair shop. Hello? Hello? No one there. I'm not going to poke around in his shop. Any auto parts store nearby? Yep, right after you get into town there are two or three of them. OK, hop into said new SUV and head to town. Don't see any auto parts shops... all the way thru town... finally spot one on the way back, run in, buy a pack of 4 extensions, scoot back to the field. Lift is still working, four gliders clearly having fun under a CU. Let's go for it! With the extension in place, pumping up the tire is easy. Takes about 7 seconds - it's a REALLY small tire!
  • While driving back, I get a call from a CFI on my cell. What the heck? Bluetooth system in said new SUV doesn't pick up, and I have to hold the phone to my ear - not kosher in California. Huh. It's always worked before. Gremlin #4.
  • Now it's after 3:00. Push out to the line, I'm #4 for takeoff. This will take a while. Gotcha #2. Glass ship #1 takes off. Glass ship #2 takes off. NTP is getting into a groove, and the tow-and-landing cycle is getting shorter. Schweitzer 2-33 backs out of line, I'm next! Lift is still working - there's a line of clouds marking the top of a shear line.
  • But the tow plane needs fuel, and that takes a while since NTP is new to the operation here. The clouds are starting to move farther away and get farther between. Gliders are no longer hugging the bottom of the clouds... they're lower and closer to the IP. Gotcha #3.
  • Tow plane is back, I'm ready to go. It's now 3:50 and the clouds are gone. Gotcha #4.
There's quite strong turbulence all the way from 50 feet AGL up to about 2000' AGL. That doesn't qualify as a Gremlin or a Gotcha, but it does make for some interesting flying on tow. I never got any major slack, much to my surprise.
  • The variometer needle is going nuts! Swinging widely from 10K of lift to 8K of sink - still on tow! I've seen this before, when the battery died on me out of Tehachapi (see my Dust Devil Dash post from September 2007.) Check the voltage: 12.4. That should be fine. Huh. Faulty vario? Water or dirt or bugs in the static lines? I do remember I thought I might have gotten a drop or two in the TE probe socket when washing the plane - could that cause this behavior? Gremlin #5.
  • NTP has taken me up to 3000' AGL, and instead of turning to head parallel to the ridge, he keeps heading deeper into the mountains. Gotcha #5: we're at cloudbase and he's still heading away from the field, beyond my comfort zone. I move out to the side to ask him to turn - no result. I remember that the practice here is that tow pilots don't respond to that signal, but they're on the radio and I could ask him to turn. But what the heck, we're high enough and not too far into the mountains, and there's a cloud to my right, so I just release.
The vario is still not right, showing 6 to 10 knots of sink although the altimeter is only going down very slowly. Fortunately I have my clip-on mini-vario, and it's blipping slightly telling me there's a bit of lift, so I just ignore the Borgelt. Unfortunately, the lift is weak and scattered, way too little to keep me up in the air. The shear line stopped working 5 minutes before I took off! Very soon I'm heading for the IP.
  • At the Initial Point I make the usual call on the radio. Abeam the end of the runway, I can see a towplane getting into position with a glider. Since we take off and land in opposite directions on the same runway, the procedure is for the wing runner and tow pilot to keep an eye on the pattern, and hold the takeoff if they judge that there is not time before the incoming glider would be in the way. (Even if they did take off, the glider could always turn final early, parallel to the runway, and land in the green area to the side.) So I fly a normal approach and keep an eye on the tow plane.
    Coach to NTP: "Hold on, there's a glider in the pattern. The guy didn't make a call."
    Me to the world: "The guy did call at the IP."
    NTP to Coach: "I heard his call."
    Gotcha #6: Due to an odd airfield sharing arrangement, glider pilots are discouraged from making any calls other than the first one at the IP. At other fields we call the IP, downwind leg, base leg, and final leg. That way is safer - Coach would have had four chances to hear my position. I don't like this procedure, but that's the way the owner prefers it.
So, after all that, a 17-minute flight, mostly a sled ride. Glass Ship #2 that took off just before me got skunked too. We were just a bit too late.

But at least we got to fly, right?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Good March soaring

The weather services could not agree on the max forecast temp for Saturday at Lake Elsinore: 67, 76, or 86 depending on who you believed. The temperatures aloft and the forecast sounding looked good though, forecasting lift up to 10,000' MSL if the ground temp got into the 80's.

It was a busy day. I washed and preflighted one of the Blaniks. One of our instructors was conducting BFR's for two pilots, and I'm working toward my instructor rating, so I was asked to help conduct the ground part, which takes about an hour. Then we had our monthly club meeting. Then I flew with an instructor. Then I went over to Hemet-Ryan Airport where some of our club gear is stored to pick up some aircraft log books and other. All part of being in a club!

I need three flights with an instructor within 60 days of the practical test, so this was #1. Our club requires an annual checkride to fly club ships, so this flight served that purpose as well. We took off about 1:30, and I knew that some other ships had stayed up. I was planning to box the wake but the tow pilot headed straight for the hills - did not give me a long straight run. Next time I'll know to advise him when I need to box.

It was a nice clear day, with just a little high cirrus at times. We got into some good thermal lift of up to 600-800 feet per minute. The lift seemed to be in a rough line that followed the southeast side of the Santa Ana Mountains. We speculate that the thermal lift from the sunny southeast side and an onshore flow from the ocean converge at the edge of the hills. We could go back and forth over the edge of the hills, but if we strayed too far west we got out of it. We got as high as 6400' MSL, and the other Blanik got up to 7200' at the same time. Good stuff! I practiced incipient stalls and slow-flight shallow turns. We came back down after 48 minutes. We could have stayed up all day with that lift, but I had places to go and the instructor had other students.

I love it when the lift is working!!

Monday, March 15, 2010

SoaringNV Wave Camp

Passing on an announcement:
Tuesday, March 30, 2010, pilots from around the world are invited to converge on Minden, Nevada to learn more about this type of glider piloting through a series of lectures, hands-on learning experiences and social activities. Minden is a known hub for soaring enthusiasts, due to its prime geography and weather conditions for the sport. Wave Camp was a staple on the Minden event calendar for years. This is the second year of its revival. The Camp will be held from March 30 to April 3 at SoaringNV at the Minden Airport.

The lectures will be led by some of the most notable and knowledgeable people in the sport.

Fred LaSor – Top instructor and tow pilot
Gordon Boettger – Achieved the North American sailplane distance record in 2005
Rick Walters – Member of the 2009 US Soaring Team Committee
Dr. Morgan McCarroll – Known Reno, Nevada Anesthesiologist
Harlow Voorhees – FAA FAASTeam Program Manager
Mike Moore - Top instructor and tow pilot, exclusive to SoaringNV

Glider pilots, who are interested in learning more about flying in wave, can attend either part of the Wave Camp or all of it. The social aspects of the Camp allow pilots who are interested in wave to learn from those who have done it.

Information about Wave Camp and other SoaringNV programs are available at

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Good flight under cloudy skies

Midday today brought some good-sized cumulus clouds to the eastern edge of the Santa Ana Mountains. Another pilot "T" mentioned he had not yet had a chance to work lift under CU (fairly rare where we used to fly), so we went up together. He also wanted to get some experience in the back seat of the Blanik, so I flew from the front seat.

We had a little trouble with the airspeed indicators on both ships, probably due to some water in the static lines. Mine was showing about 40 knots on tow, which obviously was not correct. By the time we got to about 1,000' AGL mine was about right, although the back one was still a bit off. I think the water dried out or the dirt or whatever moved on. It was not a problem for me for the rest of the flight.

We let off tow at 4200' MSL in light lift that stayed good and got even better. We traded flying duties several times and were able to reach 5600' once and 5200' several times. We could not go any higher without getting into the clouds that seemed to be at about 6000' or so. The lift was commonly 200-400 feet per minute and occasionally up to 800. Not bad for a cool day in January! The NWS forecast was for 65F maximum, lift 350' to 5400', the inversion was forecast for about 4-5000, and my thermal forecast for 60F was to 5000'. I think the ground temp was in the high 60's so the forecast was about right... a little under what we actually got.

There were as many as four gliders in the air at the same time, and we thermalled with one or two at a time. It's good to fly with two pilots - you can share the work and keep a good lookout.

The lift was best on the sunny edge of the clouds. The sun was warming the top of the ridge, and the breeze was from the valley direction. so I think the heat and slight shear made the clouds work. If we got too far east under the darker parts of the clouds, we could feel the air get noticeably cooler, and then it would start to sink. Certain areas were just continually generating lift. We went further westward over the mountains than I have gone before, but still not very far - the ceiling was fairly low and we needed to make sure we had altitude to get back over the ridge. It was easy flying - the first good soaring day I've had since we moved to Lake Elsinore.

We flew across the valley to the Sedco Hills, as much to kill time as for anything. There was a little weak lift but not enough to sustain us. We could have gone back to work the "Old Faithful" lift some more, but we'd had enough. We ended up with an even hour and a half.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review of 2009

It's been another good year of soaring. I made great progress, but my goal of becoming a flight instructor has still eluded me. Here are some highlights.

I had a total of 33 flights, 4 more than in 2008:
  • Fourteen flights with instructors
  • Five flights with other Private pilots
  • One flight with a student pilot
  • Four passenger flights
  • That leaves 10 solo flights, most of them preparing for Practical tests
  • No cross-country flights
I worked hard toward my Commercial and Instructor ratings, consciously deciding not to work on cross-country:
  • In January, I passed my Commercial Pilot Knowledge Test with a score of 95%
  • In March, I passed my Fundamentals of Instructing Knowledge Test with a score of 100%
  • In August, I passed my Flight Instructor Knowledge Test with a score of 85%.
Along the way, I did have some fun and some other accomplishments:
  • I crossed the hundred-hour mark (including instruction... still need a few hours to have 100 as PIC).
  • I had one of my longest flights, 2 hours and 40 minutes to 13,300' MSL over Tehachapi.
  • First solo spins in the Blanik L13. And for the first time had fun doing spins! This was a huge breakthrough and confidence-builder for me.
  • Conducted a couple of ground school classes (same as in 2008).
  • Learned to do no-flap landings (slip the whole pattern, and transition between left and right slips).
  • Got my biennial Flight Review via winch launches, and ticked off some instructors in the process.
  • Prepared and conducted a class on PDAs, SeeYou Mobile, and the Volkslogger.
  • Got a field checkout for Skylark Field at Lake Elsinore.
And some bad news:
  • On one of our field trips, we saw a private jet crash while preparing for an Independence Day demonstration.
  • Our club's home airport was closed to glider operations, ostensibly for "safety reasons" but actually because of the greed of the airport management and county government. This is a huge loss for soaring - gliders have been flying there for about 50 years. Our club is pursuing a complaint with the FAA, and we have reason to believe we might win.
  • My plans to take my Commercial and Instructor Practical Tests in August were derailed at the last minute by the closure of the airport and the complicated airport management situation. I plan to take my tests in the next couple of months at Lake Elsinore.
So... a mixed year. But I continue to fly a lot, even when the weather is not conducive to soaring. Just being up in the air is so much fun! I'm really looking forward to completing my Commercial and Instructor tests this spring, and flying even more in 2010.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Comments and visitors

Comments: I've always encouraged comments from readers of my blog. Unfortunately the "blog spammers" eventually found me and I had to turn on "comment moderation" some years ago. That added a bit of delay - comments don't show up until I approve them. Annoying, but no big deal.

Well, the spammers are attacking me again, this time with comments that almost look human-created, but upon a second look are so generic that they're useless. It's become a daily occurrence. So now I'm trying another method: "word verification". If you add a comment, you will have to read a word graphic and enter the word. An annoying step, I know, but I'm sure you've see it in use on other systems. On the plus side, I'll turn off comment moderation, so your comment will show up immediately.

Sorry for the inconvenience. Please keep the comments coming! If there's an aspect of soaring that I haven't written about yet, feel free to send me topic suggestions.

Visitors: In case you're curious:
  • About 175 to 240 individuals visit my blog in a typical month.
  • Over the last year, over 1,900 individuals visited at least once.
  • Usually the day after I post an article, about 20 people visit, and then fewer each day in between posts.
  • The average visitor reads 1.4 pages, which means most visitors only read one page, the most recent post.
  • The most popular posts for returning visitors have been Weather and planning for soaring and Class on PDA, SeeYou Mobile, and Volkslogger.
Thank you all for your interest!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Clear weather - new terrain - but no lift

We're experiencing some gusty winds from the north as a result of high pressure building up after a front went through a few days ago. The direction looked good for producing ridge lift in the "bowl" near Lake Elsinore. And the ADDS wind forecast predicted about 15 knots at the altitude of the top of the ridge. If the orographic lift didn't materialize, there was still the chance of thermal lift. The calculated trigger temperature was 74F. The maximum ground temperature forecasts were all over the place, from 67F to 80F. But at Lake Elsinore, the wind ranged from zero to about 5 knots - usually about zero. It started to heat up fairly well, probably to the mid-70's. (I don't think there's a thermometer out near the flight line - maybe I'll bring one out.)

The local club pilots know that we're new at this location, so they kindly offer suggestions. Several pointed out that it would be better to head for the "Sedco Hills" to the east because of the sun heating up their west-facing slopes. They also pointed out landmarks where thermals can sometimes be found.

View Larger Map

This sounded like a good idea. I had not flown that direction yet, and one concern was that it's a bit further away from the Initial Point for the landing pattern. There are some restrictions at this site about where you can and can't fly, and returning from the Sedcos means you have to traverse more of the no-thermaling area. That means leaving yourself more altitude for the return flight - which means less altitude for hunting for thermals. One pilot suggested that, depending on the wind direction, one could need 800 to 1000 feet to get from the hills to the IP, so that's what I planned on doing.

I let off at 3200' AGL and flew back and forth over the hills a few times. Due to the clear air, the views were terrific, but the lift was nonexistent. I did have time to take a few pictures.

"blip"... finally my audio vario came to life indicating some weak lift. But it died after a half turn. I could find a few blips every time I went around, but not enough to take me upward. Unfortunately it was right over the I-15 freeway, which is the border of the no-thermaling skydiving drop zone. So I could not explore over the flatlands to see if the lift would pick up. Too soon, it was time to head west to the IP.

Well... I could tell visually that it was not as far from the Sedco Hills to the Initial Point as I had thought. I consumed only about 400 feet of altitude getting across the valley. I can see how if the coastal wind is coming from the west it could take more altitude, but for normal flying I don't think it will be a big deal. I got back over near the IP with about 600-700 feet to hunt for more lift. I found a few more blips but nothing strong enough to work.

My pattern and landing were very good. I'm learning to do a "wheel landing" in the Blanik, because of the long, soft dirt runway. That means keeping the glider level on the main wheel after touchdown so the tailwheel doesn't dig in and stop the rollout right away. Quite a contrast from the extreme short stops that we always performed at Hemet. My rollout was nearly all the way back to the taxiway... I just forgot about the light crosswind at the last minute, so I wasn't perfectly straight.

Now the problems began. We're having a problem with the tailwheel on the ship I was flying. It digs into the soft dirt and doesn't roll! I don't think it's the bearing - the wheel rolls fine if you pick up the tail and spin it. And it casters (turns side to side) OK. We think the problem is that the rod it's mounted on is able to twist, so the wheel lays over on its side a few degrees instead of castering into the direction of the turn.

This makes it nearly impossible for two people to push the glider around. It's constantly digging in, and it's as if the brake is being applied.